Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Book Review: 'Jack of Shadows' by Roger Zelazny

5 / 5 Stars

‘Jack of Shadows’ was first published in 1971; this Signet paperback (236 pp) was issued in August, 1972, with a cover illustration by Segrelles.

The story takes place in a future Earth where one side of the planet is perpetually in shadow, and the other side, in daylight. 

Jack the Thief, using magical powers that are activated whenever he is standing within shadows, employs his considerable skills to amass much wealth and treasure. As the novel opens, he is attending a fair in the Twilight realm of the world, and contemplating stealing a fabulous jewel called the Hellflame.

Things don’t go well for Jack, and soon he finds himself helpless and alone in the nether regions of the world, at the mercy of his enemies. Can Jack survive his trials and tribulations, and win through to vengeance and a return to power? Or will he find himself remade in ways he cannot have foreseen ? For as goes Jack, so goes the Darkside of his world……

‘Jack of Shadows’ is one of Zelazny’s better novels. Written at a time when the author was a dedicated follower of the New Wave approach to sf, ‘Jack’ nonetheless succeeds in avoiding the excesses of the movement, while yet retaining the imaginative approach to writing that the New Wave ethos engendered in its adherents.

The landscape through which Jack has his adventures is novel and offbeat, and nothing quite like it had been presented before in fiction representing the as-yet unnamed (in 1971) genre of ‘adult fantasy’. 

The twilight world of ‘Jack of Shadows’ has its monsters and demons, as well as its pacts and players. There are formidable foes, and the occasional ally, for our hero. Zelazny takes care to present Jack as a more complex individual, than the predictable New Wave-issued caricature of an anti-hero.

In terms of its world-building, and its deliberate ambiguity towards the moral themes of the traditional heroic fantasy, ‘Jack’ is very much the precursor to the contemporary ‘dark fantasy’ sub-genre.

And by introducing idea of the Thief as a hero, Zelazny was to exert considerable influence on the burgeoning field of fantasy pop culture, as can be witnessed by the deployment of the ‘thief’ character in the Dungeons and Dragons franchise, the ‘Thief’ series of video games, and more recently, the regular usage of thieves / assassins as lead characters in modern fantasy novels (‘The Night Angel’ trilogy, ‘The Lies of Locke Lamora’ series, ‘The Farseer Trilogy’, 'Prince of Thorns', and even the lead character in the recent Legendary Comic 'The Tower Chronicles: Geisthawk', etc., etc.). 

'Jack of Shadows' is required reading for any fan of sf and fantasy.

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